Joan Hickman talks about living in Evanston before desegregation

Updated: Jul 10, 2020


"And she said, ‘Joan, no, no, no, don’t go that way, you want to go this way.’

Because I’m headed toward the lake. So I said, ‘No, I live this way. ‘

No you don’t, you live this way,’ she said."

I interviewed Joan Hickman as part of Piven Theatre Workshop and Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre’s collaboration, "A Home on the Lake", which explores--through a fictional story partly informed and inspired by Dear Evanston's interviews with Evanston residents--the history of race and property in Evanston and the concept of home. The play was co-written by Tim Rhoze and Stephen Fedo and runs through June 3.

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DE will be doing talkbacks on May 10, May 17, and May 31 following the play.

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​​Joan Hickman is a longtime resident of Evanston and deeply involved in the community. She is the younger sister of Bennett Johnson whose interview you can read here.

We talked at Curt's Cafe South and Joan told me about her life, and about living in Evanston during the years of segregation. This is an excerpt from our interview.

For several years, Joan, Bennett, and their older sister Ethelyne Baker lived in a coach house of a mansion on the lake at Sheridan Road and Milburn (the house is no longer there) because their father was the groundskeeper for the Bridge family.

Joan remembers an incident from when she was in kindergarten and trying to walk home in the "wrong" direction--no Black child would be walking toward the lake after school. She also remembers vividly seeing houses being moved from the white side of Evanston to the fifth ward when she was a young girl, and she tells me about that too.

Listen in ...

DE: Tell me about how you got to Evanston? How did your family get to Evanston?

JH: I was born in Cook County Hospital but my mother lived here in Evanston. After nine days she came home. They kept people nine days then. And she came home to 1930 Dodge. That was my first home. I’m the youngest of three children. I have a sister who’s three years older, Ethelyn Baker. And my brother who was two years old, Bennett Johnson. I call him my ‘big bother.’ And then there’s me. I’m two years younger than Bennett.

DE: So your mother lived in Evanston before you were born?

JH: No. She and my father were together and they lived in Chicago in Englewood. But they split up in April and my mother came to Evanston and I was born in May. This was in the 1930s.

DE: So what made them move here?

JH: Because my grandmother and her sister, had purchased a house here in Evanston. My great aunt was a widow and she had five boys. She was married to a minister at a church in New York. He was in an accident and was injured but he lived for a while.


When he died, she moved to Evanston because her oldest brother worked here in Evanston. So he helped her to get the house and moved her boys in, and my grandmother was a live-in domestic and on her days off, every Thursday and every other Sunday, she had to have someplace to come, you know. She worked with the family of James Pearl Prindle, II, in Winnetka.

DE: What was the house on Dodge like?

JH: It was a two-bedroom house. But it was a bungalow. They fixed two rooms in the basement for the boys to sleep in. And all the women slept upstairs in the bedrooms.

DE: So six boys downstairs. And then you, your mother ...

JH: … and my aunt and grandmother, and oh, at the time I was born, I had a great-great aunt who was still living and was born a slave. And when I was too young to go to school, she and I would be home and everybody else would be either in school or at work. And I never, never could get her to tell me anything about slavery.

DE: What was her name?

JH: Mary Garth.

DE: She was your mom’s grandmother?

JH: No. She really wasn’t. But my great aunt--the one who bought the house with my grandmother--when she was born, her mother died. And Aunt Mary was the sister to my great aunt. So it was you know still all in the family.

DE: And how did you find out that she’d been born into slavery?

JH: Well, everybody knew it. She just wouldn’t talk about it. She really didn’t do a lot of talking, and when I’d be home with her she would be cooking and humming. But she really wouldn’t talk about much of anything, you know.

She worshipped the ground I walked on and my youngest cousin, she worshipped the ground he walked on, because we were the youngest. On Sundays after church we’d come home and have dinner. And then around 6 o’clock we’d have dessert. You know there would be pie or cake or whatever they made that day for dessert.

And my cousin and I would get the first slice of whatever it was, and it would be a BIG slice. And she would give Bennett a little bitty slice, only because he complained that she gave my cousin Everett and I a big slice. And Everett and I enjoyed that position.

DE: What did it feel like at the time when you were growing up in terms of racism and discrimination? What was your experience as an African American young person growing up in Evanston in the 30s and 40s?

JH: When I was four years old my father and moth